In the remote district of Mugu lives a girl who broke all conventions set for women and decided to play football.
Sunakali Budha, a 14 year-old girl in the remote district of Mugu, saw football for the first time in 2011 and in less than three years time she has become a star in her village. Sunakali became a household name after she scored three goals that led Team Mugu to victory at the national level women’s football championship held in Kailali in 2013. The girl who proved to be nimble on her feet and could dodge opponents effortlessly was named the best player of the tournament.
“Initially my parents were dead against me playing football but now that Team Mugu has won a national tournament, they are very happy and encourage me to continue playing,” says Sunakali who is currently studying in grade nine at Rara Dynamic Secondary School in Mugu. Jeet Bahadur Malla, the founder of the school where Sunakali has been enrolled for little over a year now, believes that this young girl was born to play football.
“She loves the game. You can see that in the way her eyes light up at the mere mention of it,” says Jeet Bahadur. But life in Mugu is tough, particularly so for women. Mugu, which lies at the bottom of Nepali districts in terms of human development index, has the lowest life expectancy (39 years) and literacy rate (9%) for women. Not just that, 63% of girls aged 15 to 19 are married.
However, the district where girls were expected to do only household chores and look after their siblings much less go to school or play football is slowly discarding its old ways. According to Jeet Bahadur, following Sunakali’s achievement and Team Mugu’s success, more and more girls are being enrolled in schools in Mugu compared to boys.
“There has been a huge change in the mindset of the people. They believe that given the right opportunity, girls too can do wonders. There is that awareness,” he says further explaining that even girls are now demanding to be given opportunities to play football and get involved in other activities and not just be confined to regular household and school works.
But the transformation, per se, has definitely not been an easy one, not as far as Team Mugu is concerned. The documentary ‘Sunakali’ made by journalist Bhojraj Bhat shows the hardships and the roadblocks the girls have had to endure to fight their way through to bring about this change.
The girls were going against the conventions set for women and challenging the norms when they decided to represent their school in the district level football tournament and that was anything but easy. Even Mugu’s geography posed a challenge for the girls, as there was not a single field large enough where they could practice.
“We didn’t set out to make a documentary on Sunakali or Team Mugu. We were just filming the process of the football tournament but as we followed Team Mugu’s journey, we quickly realized that Sunakali and the team were extraordinary and their story was worthy of being told,” says the producer of the documentary, Pushkar Ghimire.
Team Mugu was formed when Good Neighbors International (GNI), an NGO that focuses on the development of remote districts of Nepal, decided to hold a district level football tournament for girls. 30 girls were trained out of which 15 were selected; then came the difficult part. The parents of the selected girls at first refused to let them play football. Sunakali’s parents were adamant to keep their daughter away from what they considered to be ‘improper’ for girls. They cited reasons like household chores, studies, and even not wanting to send their daughter far away from home and under those pretexts refused to let her play football.
“I have three brothers and my parents wanted me to stay at home to look after them and not waste time playing football. The other girls in the team also faced similar problems,” says Sunakali adding that her parents discouraged her also because Chaitya Dashain was around the corner and they believed that evil spirits would haunt her if she left home during this period.
After much convincing, the girls were finally allowed to play, but on one condition: they were told to come back as winners and not bring shame upon Mugu by losing. But Team Mugu was defeated in its first competitive outing: A friendly against their neighbor Humla. Football was perhaps the last thing on their minds as they returned to their village and went about their daily lives. But fate wasn’t ready to give up on them and Team Mugu got the chance to participate in the national women’s football championship in Kailali.
Representing their district in a national tournament was not only a matter of pride but also a window to the world that lay beyond Mugu. The journey to Kailali proved to be the first of many. This was the first time they left Mugu, the first time they set foot on the plains of the tarai, the first time they saw bullock carts, rickshaws, and airplanes among many other such firsts. “We had motion sickness even when we were on a tractor,” says Sunakali remembering the first time she and her teammates rode on one.
In Kailali, Team Mugu took to the game with a ferocity that was unmatched by any other team in the entire tournament. Sunkali’s consecutive goals in the matches took them to the semifinals and the finals where the girl in jersey number 12 showed the resilience of a player who just keeps getting better with every match and Team Mugu managed to lift the trophy.
Their triumph was celebrated with much aplomb in Mugu where the girls received a warm welcome upon their arrival at Talcha airport. The locals had arranged for horses for them: another first for the girls as it was unusual for women in Mugu to ride horses. People in all the villages along the way cheered for the girls, blessed them, and thanked them for making Mugu proud.
While most of the girls’ parents were elated, some were upset that Sunakali got so much attention that their girls’ contribution faded in comparison. But still there are many who vouch that had it not been for Sunakali who showed great stamina and prowess in the field and scored crucial goals, Team Mugu might not have achieved this feat. The documentary Sunakali added to her soaring popularity especially after it won two awards at the recently concluded 12th edition of the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival (KIMFF).
“I haven’t been able to watch the documentary but I heard people liked it,” says Sunakali admitting that she is very happy to have had her talents acknowledged but she’s also sad that she doesn’t get to play football as much.
During the match at Kailali, an official from the National Sports Council (NSC) had selected some girls and promised to train them in Kathmandu under the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA). Sunakali often wonders if her dream of being a professional footballer will ever come true and lives with the hope that she will soon be summoned with a message that will take her to her dream city, albeit far away from her family.
But the situation doesn’t look very positive at the moment. According to Mukunda Bahadur Pahari, the NSC member who had declared that the girls would be trained by ANFA in Kathmandu, GNI was supposed to submit a list of possible candidates following which they would be trained by ANFA but the list hasn’t been presented to them even after two years of Team Mugu’s victory in Kailali.
“GNI was supposed to fund their expenses and bring them to Kathmandu but that hasn’t happened,” says Pahari explaining that NSC would leave no stones unturned in the girls training if they are brought to the capital. Supporting Pahari’s claims Lalit Krishna Shrestha, President and spokesperson at ANFA says that the association would first train the girls and then check their game standards before making a final selection, if there are brought to the capital. Whether this will happen or not remains to be seen.
And while the real Sunakali remains somewhat hidden in Mugu, the documentary Sunakali is going places. Bhat plans to take it to an international level and submit it to various film festivals around the world. According to Bhat, this will help shed light on Sunakali’s talents. But only time can tell how and if this will benefit the little football star of Mugu.
While Bhat harbors big dreams, the girl who broke the shackles of society and changed their perception of women, still faces challenges on a daily basis. Her reality hasn’t changed much. She still has to collect fodder, cook for her family, and look after her siblings. Her football dream wanes a little every day, burdened by the everyday pressures of life bound by poverty. But Sunakali isn’t someone to give up easily. Till the day she can focus on football, she says she will concentrate on her studies and passing her exams. And if anything, that’s a hopeful start.
(The photographs are from the documentary ‘Sunkali’.)